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Published: February 21st 2007
The Great Cave, Niah National Park, Sarawak.
In this cave were found the oldest remains of modern man in South East Asia - over 40,000 years old.
("Bela Lugosi's Dead", Bauhaus; song released August 1979.)
"The bats have left the bell tower,
The victims have been bled"
The biggest draw for tourists in Sarawak on the island of Borneo is the Gunung Mulu National Park.(Click here for link).
It is a remote area of tropical rain-forest of great biodiversity that contains remarkable Karst formations and caves. The caves are some of the largest in the world. The Sarawak Chamber is the world’s largest natural chamber within a cave, whilst the Deer Cave is the world’s largest natural cave passage.
Within the Deer Cave live millions of bats. They emerge every day (when it's not raining), to put on a spectacular display. They stream out of the Deer Cave and make patterns in the twilight , black streamers and circles across the darkening sky.
The Mulu National Park is the premier destination in the province, it has been designated as a World Heritage
site by the UN, because of its caves, its wide diversity of animal and plant life and its cultural heritage. The Penan and Berawan indigenous peoples still have hunting and collecting privileges in subsistence hunting zones within the park.
Over the years bats have got a bad
press as in my quote from the Bauhaus song, but in fact they are an essential and beneficial part of the Eco-system.
Insect-eating bats consume tons of mosquitoes and moths. Fruit bats also do us a great favour by pollinating trees, especially fruit trees, as well as providing their guano as an invaluable fertiliser. The Guano in the caves of the Mulu National Park give them a very pungent aroma!
THE WHITE RAJAS
I flew to Sarawak on the 4th of February from KL (Kuala Lumpur) on a dirt cheap budget airline. It cost 20 pounds, half of which was airport charges!
I had stopped off briefly in mainland Peninsula Malaysia to visit the historic city of Melaka(see my last blog)
, after visiting the Philippines (see Abu Sayyaf, Headhunters, sharks, typhoons, active volcanoes and landslides)
. Just the latest leg in my never ending world tour...
Sarawak is a semi-autonomous province of Malaysia on the island of Borneo. The island of Borneo is divided between 3 nation states: Malaysia, Indonesia and the tiny (but very wealthy) Sultanate of Brunei.
I arrived in the capital city of Sarawak -
. Because Sarawak is semi independent, I had to get another Visa
for Sarawak even though it is part of the federation of Malaysia. Kuching is a very pleasant city of half a million people. In the centre of the city it retains many of its colonial buildings.
Sarawak has a very weird colonial history. For over a hundred years, the state was ruled not by a colonial power, but by a single English family, the Brookes; known as the
In the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries Brunei was a powerful Sultanate that controlled the coastal settlements of present day Serawak. But, by the nineteenth century Brunei was a declining power. The local Malay chiefs staged an anti-Brunei rebellion in 1835.
In 1839 James Brooke arrived in Kuching to deliver a letter to the governor of Sarawak, during the rebellion.
James Brooke was an adventurer who admired the founder of Singapore, Sir Stanford Raffles . He had earlier arrived in Singapore on his schooner the Royalist which he had bought with an inheritance .
The governor of Sarawak, the Raja Muda was desperate to retain control of Serawak, and offered to grant Brooke the area around the Serawak
river and the title of Raja, if he could suppress the rebellion. James Brooke managed to bring about a peaceful settlement and was installed as the White Raja of Sarawak in 1842.
Over the succeeding years the White Rajas took more and more land from the Sultanate of Brunei until it was reduced to the tiny state that it is today.
I spent a few days relaxing in Kuching, amidst its colonial buildings, museums and pleasant waterfront.
Whilst in Kuching I visited the Semmenggoh Orang Utang Rehabilitation Centre, which is 1 hours drive outside the city. Semmonggoh was the first forest reserve in Serawak on 1920. It was turned into a wild life rehabilitation centre for monkeys, Orang Utangs, honey bears and horn-bills in 1975.
The aim is to re-introduce as many of the animals as possible to their natural habitats, as many have been orphaned by logging or were kept illegally as pets. I went to Semenggoh for the afternoon feeding time. Unfortunately for me, the Orang Utangs didn't turn up to the feeding platform. This time of year the forest is full of fruit. The Orang
The bats have left...
...the Deer Cave, Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Borneo.
Utangs were obviously not hungry. In some ways it was a good thing. It shows that they can survive in the forest.
UPRIVER TO THE HEART OF BORNEO
Finally on the seventh of February, I left the comfort zone of Kuching, to start my trip upriver into the heart of Borneo. I started with a 3 hour trip to the city of Sibu
by express boat. Sarawak has a system of 'express' boats along the coast and along the rivers into the interior. The express boats look like torpedoes. They have 1,000 horsepower engines. Its a good idea to sit away from the engines if you don't want to go deaf! The boats can reach speeds of 60 km an hour and deal with fast surging rapids with ease.
Sibu is the first stop on the trip along the Rejang River, which is Malaysia's longest river. Sibu is 130 km inland from the sea along the Rejang River. It is Sarawak's second largest town, the main port and commercial centre of the Rejang basin.
Travelling along the river to Sibu, I passed many boats carrying wood logged from the Borneo interior.
In fact the river was full of logging detritus, every so often I would hear a thud on the side of the boat - another small piece of wood had hit the side of the boat.
I stayed in Sibu one night then continued to the town of Kapit. There are no roads to Kapit. The town can only be reached by fast riverboats.
is the last major administrative post on the Rejang River dating from the days of the White Rajas. The town was founded by Raja Charles Brooke as a garrison town in 1880. He built Fort Sylvia which is still the main landmark in Kapit to prevent the Iban from moving upriver and fighting with the Orang Ulu (Kayan and Kenyah indigenous groups).
When I arrived in Kapit in the early afternoon I was surprised to find most of the hotels full. This was despite the fact that I saw no other Western tourists in town. Some of the guests were probably local and Malay tourists, but logging is a major economic activity in Kapit. So, I suspect that many of the guests in the hotels were
Lugging my backpack around 6 different hotels in the tropical heat in the middle of the day, I finally found somewhere with spare rooms. It was a dump, but I didn't really have a choice.
In Kapit I visited Fort Sylvia, which has a small museum. I also had to obtain a permit from the State Government Complex. A special permit is required to travel beyond the Pelagus Rapids to Belaga, which was my next destination.
I don't know why a permit is required. It's not as if there are head hunters in the Borneo interior these days. The White Rajas didn't approve of head hunters - there haven't been any for a very long time. Upriver of Kapit didn't seem to be dangerous. Also, although I dutifully obtained my permit, no one actually ever checked it.
BURN DOWN ALL THE FORESTS!
The next day, Friday the ninth of February I left Kapit for Belaga. I took the only daily express boat to Belaga. When the river is too low, it is cancelled. It was a four hour ride up the river.
an hour the river became very fast. Soon the boat was dodging between jagged rocks and swirling rapids. At times the captain would hold the boat stationary in the fast moving water and turn the boat in the water. Once he had positioned the boat he would surge up the scary rapids within inches of jagged rocks by sheer horsepower. I certainly hoped the captain knew what he was doing. No one else in the boat seemed the least bit worried. In fact many of the passengers were taking a nap as we found our way through the Pelagus Rapids.
I arrived in Belaga
at midday. It is a sleepy village. It seems to be a trading centre for the surrounding villages and Longhouses. The highlight of the day seems to be when there are a few children playing in the main square. I booked into one of the 4 hotels in the village and arranged a tour for the next day. There were not many tourists in town. I spoke to a local who told me that there was 2 other tourists in town. Later, I met them. They were staying in the hotel
next to mine. They were a couple who had been traveling for 7 years. They had just spent a few years in India, and were finding Malaysia very expensive in comparison to India.
On the tenth of February I took a tour up the river, hiked the rain-forest and visited 3 different Longhouses - Keyan, Kejang and Kejamann. A Longhouse is what it sounds like - a very long building. Basically, it's a village under one roof. Longhouses are built collectively by the whole community.
My guide was Hamdani bin Louis (Ham). He told me that things were very different now. 20 years ago, when he was young the river was clean and full of fish. He loves fishing. But he now finds it very difficult to find any fish. It has been destroyed by over-logging and the controversial dam that was built upriver. The Bakun Dam
not only flooded a vast area of virgin rain-forest but it also displaced 10,000 local tribes-people. So, there are much more limited opportunities for hiking in the rain-forest. Many of the trails around Belaga have been destroyed by the loggers...
of the environment in remote regions of Borneo is extensive. Despite that Ham managed to find a trail in the rain-forest for us to walk. It had been raining the previous night, so I found myself slipping and sliding through the forest.
It could have been worse. For a number of years Borneo has been afflicted by smog late in the dry season. It was still the wet season, so I didn't have smog to contend with.
How is it that a vast area of virgin rain-forest generates a nasty smog that spreads as far as Singapore? Because, in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan on the island of Borneo they have taken to burning down the forests for Palm Oil Plantations. The Palm Oil is then turned into so-called 'Bio-Diesel' for Europeans to put in their cars. (Click here for link to George Monbiot article)
The Bio-Diesel is sold to the European consumer as an Eco-friendly alternative. Insane? It reminds me of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy...
Douglas Adams - The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide (ISBN: 0517149257), The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe, page 299. (Click here for an article on the 2006 forest fires in Borneo and Sumatra)
But we have also, run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship's peanut." - "So in order to obviate this problem, and effectivaly revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and.. er, burn down all the forests. I think you'll all agree that's a sensible move under the circumstances.
There might be
some good news...
Three Nations Agree to Conserve Biodiverse Heart of Borneo
BALI, Indonesia, February 12, 2007 (ENS) - A declaration to protect the forested Heart of Borneo was signed today by ministers from the three Bornean governments - Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia. The agreement will conserve and sustainably manage one of the most important centers of biological diversity in the world, inhabited by endangered orangutans, elephants and rhinos.
The agreement ends plans to create the world’s largest palm oil plantation that would have cleared a vast rainforest along Indonesia’s border with Malaysia across the world's third largest island.
(Click here to the link to the full article)
The problem is that the Logging and Palm Oil Industry is rich and the Indonesian Government has shown little ability to enforce its environmental laws. Can the Indonesian Government enforce this law? Will the agreement be a dead letter? We will see...
My tour of the area around Belaga took up the whole day. We hiked rain-forest, ate lunch in the reception room of the headman of one of the 3 Longhouses we visited and we also visited the rice fields near Belaga; where locals were bringing in the harvest and threshing rice. Because most people were out working in the fields or in markets and jobs elsewhere, the Longhouses were very empty. The only people around for most of the day were the old and the very young. Grandparents babysitting.
It was a good trip. We got back to Belaga in the evening, just before the sky broke open and it started raining again. Its not called rain-forest for nothing.
The next day (Sunday 11th of February) I left Belaga at 8am. Ham arranged transport
for me. 4 wheel drive cars leave the village nearly every day. They make their way by logging trails through the forest to the town of Bintulu.
It was a 4 hour trip through the Borneo interior. The car needed its 4 wheel drive. The trail was very muddy. It had rained heavily again.
On route with passed huge areas of wasteland - massive scars left in the rain-forest by the loggers. Bintulu
is a commercial and industrial town on the Borneo coast. Not a very pretty town, but a useful stopover. I stayed in Bintulu one night, continuing to the city or Miri the next morning.
MIRI AND NIAH NATIONAL PARK
I arrived in Miri
at 4pm on Monday 12th. Once I had booked into a hotel, it was too late to visit a travel agent to book a flight to the Mulu National Park. Mulu National Park is Sarawak's premier tourist destination, as I explained at the start of this blog.
The next day (Tuesday 13th) I caught a bus at 8am. I was on my way to the Niah National Park.
Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre
Walking toward the feeding platform for the Orang Utans. There was plenty of food in the forest, so they weren't interested. So we saw no Orang Utans.
In the park is the Great Cave where the remains of modern humans from 40,000 years ago were found. The oldest in S.E. Asia. The caves also contain edible birds nests, bats and prehistoric cave paintings.
There is no direct bus to the Park. I had to catch a bus to an intersection on the main Borneo highway that runs the length of Serawak. When I arrived at the intersection which has a few shops and a market, I still had another 15km till I got to the park.
Fortunately, someone in a car stopped and asked if I was going to the National Park. They drove me to the Park Headquarters. The journey to the caves was hard work. It was a very hot and humid day. From the park headquarters I caught a boat across a river, followed by a three and a half hour km walk through the rain-forest.
There was a wooden walkway all the way, which was essential, as most of the forest floor was one vast flooded blog. When I got to the cave I took my shirt off to give it a chance to
dry. A mistake, as walking through the total darkness in the Great Cave the mosquitoes flew towards the light attached to my forehead. They probably couldn't believe their luck that I had left so much flesh exposed for them to feast upon.
The whole trip from the Park headquarters and back took about 5 hours (not including the journey to the park). When I got back to the Park Headquarters to sign out I discovered from the woman in the headquarters that I had been the only tourist visitor that day. I needed to get back to the road junction, so I asked the woman how I was going to get back. I didn't fancy a 15km walk. She called another employee who gave me a lift.
WHAT A PONG!
When I got to the road junction there was a bus waiting. It was stopped for a meal break. I got on the bus and sat down enjoying the air conditioning. The bus was fairly empty. But there was a strange smell on the bus. I looked around looking for a culprit. Until I realised it was me. I stank of guano (bat
shit) and sweat. Nobody on the bus complained about me...maybe they were too polite.
The next day (14th of February) I was able to book a flight to Mulu for the 15th. Which is where I started this blog. I also booked my accommodation in the Park. There is only very limited accommodation within the National Park.
MULU NATIONAL PARK
I spent 3 days in Mulu National Park. It wasn't very busy. I flew back to Miri on the 17th on the eve of Chinese New Year. A Canadian couple ( Ken and Debra) who I met in the Park told me that they had some difficulty booking their accommodation. They were staying over the Chinese New Year. Which was probably the problem. The Lunar New Year is a big public holiday in Serawak. There is a very large Chinese community.
I found that when I returned to Miri on the 17th that the hotels in Miri were empty. In fact, I even went upmarket because the upmarket hotels in Miri were all offering huge discounts. Miri is an oil boom-town. Everyone was on holiday. They had deserted the towns
for the beaches and the National Parks. An empty Miri gave me a good chance to work on this blog.
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